Chicago Theater Review: BAKERSFIELD MIST (TimeLine Theatre Company at Stage 773)

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by Lawrence Bommer on August 26, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


Given the amount of sheer transience in 2016, authenticity (as in a lack of fakery) has never seemed more needed–or endangered. Ever seeking to “keep it real,” our quest for bedrock values, genuine feeling and awesome actuality seems a natural reaction to (or, more accurately, against) the slimy promulgation of irony for its own sake, “meta”-mongering, political pandering, virtual realties, and a faddishly irreverent exaltation of feeling over fact. Not surprisingly, the task of any objective estimator to tell it like it seems imperiled by “go along” temptations and debilitating doubt.

Janet Ulrich Brooks & Mike Nussbaum in Bakersfield Mist at TimeLine Theatre.

Last season, Mike Nussbaum, Chicago’s most enduring actor, played an appraiser—an evaluator of antiques—in Arthur Miller’s The Price with TimeLine Theatre Company. In the theater’s latest offering, the engrossing two-person drama Bakersfield Mist, Nussbaum tackles the similarly thankless role of an esteemed art authenticator (and, by definition, a forgery detector). Dispensing with any such nonsense as beauty belonging in the eye of the beholder, he judges a work of art by more than its provenance as he unavoidably puts a price on a painting: A specialist in modern expressionism, Lionel Percy relies on the “blink” effect, an instinctive, impulsive response to the real thing that seldom leads him astray.

Mike Nussbaum & Janet Ulrich Brooks in Bakersfield Mist at TimeLine Theatre.

But in Bakersfield Mist, an 80-minute Chicago premiere richly mined by Kevin Christopher Fox, this prestigious consultant faces a very curious collector. The unlikely setting is a cluttered trailer in a “park” in Bakersfield, California. Nussbaum’s embattled art judge has crossed the country to assess a supposedly monumental discovery made by ex-bartender Maude Gutman (a fascinating Janet Ulrich Brooks). Living in a dump festooned with kitschy Western art, this improbable patron of the arts spent $3 on a very unusual painting, purchased as a joke from a local thrift shop. A friend who has applied C.S.I.-like techniques to analyzing the painter’s fingerprint and style, along with her own Internet “research,” has convinced Maude that the colorful canvas–spattered splashes of color displaying the anarchic disarray of a “fingerprint” painting–is a genuine Jackson Pollack worth potentially $50-100 million.

Mike Nussbaum and Janet Ulrich Brooks in Bakersfield Mist at TimeLine Theatre.

This fantastic find, of course, is desperate Maude’s ticket out of a dead-end life as dry as the desert around her and more mindless than the barking of the neighbors’ dogs. At last the semi-suicidal lifetime loser, downhill since her son died in a motorcycle crash, has hit the big time. But it’s subject to approval from a world-class connoisseur. Everything depends on Lionel sanctioning the potential Pollack for future auction.

Janet Ulrich Brooks & Mike Nussbaum in Bakersfield Mist at TimeLine Theatre.

Despite Maude’s almost contagious wishful thinking and her clumsy sexual come-on as further persuasion, Lionel refuses his stamp of approval. Based on an “intuitive repulsion,” he finds it “empty and worthless.” All too aware how easily contemporary creations can pass for profitable “products,” Lionel has detected too many Pollack forgeries to indulge in the corruption of false subjectivity. Once burned, twice learned: He’s already endured disgrace by allowing his love for an ancient Greek “kouros” to induce a false attribution—a scandal that that got him fired from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and that hasn’t escaped the notice of investigative Maude. (The fact that Lionel could be both a curator of classical sculpture and an expert on abstract art strains credulity.)

Mike Nussbaum in Bakersfield Mist at TimeLine Theatre.

But Bakersfield Mist (its name alluding to both the locale and Pollack’s celebrated Lavender Mist) has a mission beyond any dispute over priorities like the artistic feuds in Yasmina Reza’s Art and John Logan’s Red. Emotional authenticity matters too, and in this area Lionel is both tone-deaf and surprisingly open-minded. (To paraphrase the cliché: “I don’t know honesty but I know what I like.”) He sees it in Maude. Suddenly a seeming impasse becomes an equalizing opportunity. Will Lionel put heart over art and give Maude a happy judgement day? Silence is golden.

Janet Ulrich Brooks & Mike Nussbaum in Bakersfield Mist at TimeLine Theatre

At times playwright Stephen Sachs perhaps pushes his penchant for inclusion a bit too far. Given Maude’s trailer-trash tendency to argue with a knife and a gun, you wonder why Lionel doesn’t leave sooner. But something in Maude’s anguished intensity, a non-negotiable passion thanks to Brook’s raw realism, keeps Lionel listening and learning. Not content with just playing a “fish out of water” in this culture clash, Nussbaum richly conveys Lionel’s shock at discovering Maude’s integrity: She refuses to get a surefire $2 million for this unproven painting by defrauding a credulous businessman in India. She wants Lionel’s all-important “green light.”

Janet Ulrich Brooks and Mike Nussbaum in Bakersfield Mist at TimeLine Theatre.

Based on an actual story, Bakersfield Mist takes us through a minefield of situational ethics and conditional justice. When Maude cries out “I’m not giving up,” it’s about much more than validating a thrift-shop masterpiece. To Lionel’s amazement this woman possesses “arête,” the Greek word for inner virtue. You can’t put a price on that.

Janet Ulrich Brooks & Mike Nussbaum in Bakersfield Mist at TimeLine Theatre.

photos by Lara Goetsch

Bakersfield Mist
TimeLine Theatre Company
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
ends on October 15, 2016
for tickets, call 773.327.5252 or visit TimeLine

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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